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Temple of Edfu: Discover the Best-Preserved Temple in Egypt

The Temple of Edfu holds a distinguished place among Egypt’s splendid temples. It is a testament to architectural grandeur and a must-visit as a dedicated trip or a pause during a serene Egypt Nile cruise.

Dedicated to the revered deity Horus, the Temple of Edfu remains remarkably well-preserved. Nestled in Edfu along the western banks of the Nile, this site offers a captivating experience for travelers exploring Egypt.

Constructed between 237 BC and 57 BC in the era of Ptolemaic rule following Alexander the Great’s conquest in 323 BC, the temple is a fusion of Greek leadership under the Ptolemies and the emulation of Egyptian architectural traditions of that period.

Initiated by Ptolemy III, the Temple’s construction was furthered by his successor, Ptolemy IV Philopator. Through successive reigns, it was eventually completed by Ptolemy XII in 57 BC, representing a convergence of historical legacies in its creation.

Edfu, home to approximately 60,000 residents, rests along the Nile’s western shore between Esna and Aswan. Enveloped by palm groves, desert landscapes, and enigmatic granite mountains, this Egyptian city resonates with a rich history, once serving as a pivotal capital in Upper Egypt’s annals.

History of Edfu Temple

In 332 BC, Egypt saw the invasion of Alexander the Great. Following his demise in 323 BC, Egypt fell under the rule of Alexander’s successors, marking the onset of the Ptolemaic dynasty. This dynasty, the final ruling lineage of independent Egypt, comprised Greeks who presented themselves to the Egyptians as native pharaohs. They closely mimicked the customs and architectural styles of Pharaonic Egypt to establish their legitimacy.

During the Ptolemaic era, the Temple of Horus at Edfu was constructed, replacing an earlier temple oriented differently, from east to west, instead of the current north-south alignment.

The original section of the Temple, from the festival hall to the sanctum, was initiated by Ptolemy III around 237 BC and later completed by his successor, Ptolemy IV Philopator.

Additional structures like the Hypostyle Hall were added during the reign of Ptolemy VII (145-116 BC), and the tower was erected during Ptolemy IX’s rule (88-81 BC). The finishing touches were implemented under Ptolemy XII in 57 BC.

Horus, depicted with a falcon head, was initially revered as the sky god, embodying the sun and moon. Over time, he became integrated into the well-known myth of Isis and Osiris, serving as the son of this divine duo.

According to mythology, after Osiris was slain by his brother Seth, Horus was raised by Isis and Hathor. He sought vengeance for his father’s death in a legendary battle at Edfu, banishing Seth, assuming the throne, and governing on behalf of Osiris from the Underworld. Consequently, all pharaohs laid claim to being the embodiment of Horus, known as the “living king.”

Following the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the outlawing of paganism in AD 391, the Edfu Temple was deserted. It remained buried beneath the sand, with houses constructed above it, until the 1860s when Auguste Mariette conducted excavations, uncovering the well-preserved monument. The sand acted as a protective shield, contributing to its remarkable condition today.

In 2005, enhancements were made to the Temple’s south side, including adding a visitor center and a paved car park. Subsequently, in late 2006, a sophisticated lighting system was installed to facilitate nighttime visits.

How to get to Edfu Temple?

Approximately 135 kilometers north of Aswan, the Edfu Temple often forms part of the itinerary alongside the Kom Ombo Temple. Travelers frequently visit these two temples together, especially when cruising along the Nile. However, arranging separate excursions to visit Edfu and Kom Ombo is possible for those who prefer not to take a cruise. These excursions can be chartered individually and are available from departure points such as Luxor or Aswan. This offers an alternative means for exploring these historically significant sites without committing to a full Nile cruise experience.

What to see in Edfu Temple?

Before arriving at the Temple’s front, the Nativity House stands on the left, serving as the venue for the annual coronation festival, honoring the divine birth of Horus and the ruling pharaoh.

Reliefs at the rear of this structure depict Horus being nurtured by Isis. Notably, the birth house, a Greco-Roman addition, was not part of the original ancient Egyptian temple architecture.

Ptolemy IX (88-81 BC) oversaw the tower’s construction, one of the last additions to the Temple. Towering at 37 meters, it ranks among Egypt’s largest. Its reliefs showcase the later Ptolemaic ruler, Neos Dionysus (Ptolemy XII), triumphing over adversaries in the presence of Horus the Great.

The entrance to the Temple was once sealed by a colossal cedar wood door, which was looted in the past. Adjacent to the gate stood a statue of Horus safeguarding one of the Temple’s high priests.

Encircling the Edfu Temple is a 13-meter-high protective wall made of mud brick, symbolizing the primordial ocean’s waters. According to Egyptian belief, the Temple represented the Earth’s initial creation.

Beyond the entrance gate lies a spacious courtyard where visitors can capture images of Horus. This square area is bordered by columns on three sides, adorned with ceremonial carvings.

Adorning the inner walls of the courtyard, the reliefs portray the splendid festival of assembly, depicting Hathor’s symbolic journey from Dendera to unite intimately with Horus before returning to her Temple in Dendera.

Beneath the western gallery, reliefs depict Ptolemy IX (88-81 BC) making offerings to Horus, Hathor, and Ihi. Subsequent rulers are shown alongside the same deities throughout this passage.

At the end of the offering courtyard and near the entrance to the Hall of Columns, another grand statue of the falcon god Horus stands, often attracting visitors keen on photographing the Edfu Temple.

The First Hall of Columns:

The columns within Egyptian temple rooms symbolize the world’s trees, with capitals designed in various plant shapes, embodying ancient Egypt’s worldview.

The room’s ceiling seems to have suffered damage from the damp mud that once covered the Temple. The engraved scenes on the walls likely occurred during the Temple’s closure in 319 AD under the decree of the Roman Emperor Theodosius II, who ordered the closure of all pagan temples in the Roman Empire.

To the left of this room, wall scenes depict the Temple’s founding, starting from the far right.

With a flashlight, visitors can explore two intriguing rooms in the entrance wall: the sanctification hall on the left, where kings or priests ritually dressed, and the library on the right, housing sacred texts dedicated to Sheshat, the goddess of writing. Unfortunately, Christian icon-makers destroyed reliefs of Horus on the far (north) wall.

The Second Hall of Columns:

Constructed during the reign of Ptolemy VII (145-116 BC), this rectangular hypostyle hall boasts two rows of six columns supporting an intact roof. Its ceiling features astronomical panels symbolizing the sky.

In the first and second columned rooms, visitors can observe capitals of diverse shapes, departing from the symmetry of typical Egyptian art. On the south side, scenes depict the New Year’s feast, showcasing priests in ceremonial garb.

During the New Year’s celebration, priests dressed in white linen, led by the king, carried the sacred boat bearing the image of Horus to the Temple’s balcony.

A small door adorned with exquisite carvings of sacred symbols of Horus and Hathor leads from the ceremony room to the offering room. Engravings on the ascending and descending staircases depict the ritual, although access might be challenging due to locked doors requiring a flashlight to explore.

The room in the rear left (northwest) corner is the laboratory, where inscribed walls contain recipes for incense and ointments.

Edfu Temple Precincts:

This room leads to Horus’s shrine, the Temple’s most sacred area. The shrine houses a black granite relic dedicated by Nectanebo II, serving as the Temple’s oldest artifact. Originally, a gilded wooden cult image of Horus occupied this space. Adjacent to the sanctuary stands an offering table and a ceremonial boat (barge) utilized during festivals.

On the sanctuary’s right (east) wall, reliefs depict Philopator (Ptolemy IV) venerating Horus, Hathor, and his parents within the cover.

The corridor encircling the Haram al-Sharif area contains numerous rooms of interest. On the left (west) side lies the Linen Room, flanked by the Min chapels and the throne of the gods.

Towards the rear, rooms dedicated to Osiris display colored reliefs showcasing Horus receiving offerings, a life-size depiction of Horus Barky, and anthropomorphic replacements on the rear wall.

The right aisle features the New Year’s Chapel, adorned with striking blue depictions of the sky goddess Nut across its ceiling.

Returning to the Festival Hall, visitors can explore the outer corridor, where priests calculate levies based on a nearby nilometer.

A passage in the west wall leads to a corridor displaying reliefs depicting Horus’s triumph over Set. These reliefs illustrate a mystery game enacted as part of the festival rituals, with Seth defined as a lurking hippopotamus beneath his nephew’s boat. The priests concluded the play by cutting and consuming a cake shaped like a hippopotamus.